`Step out' traffic stops reviewed

Enforcement method reconsidered after Howard officer's death

June 19, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Following the first on-duty death of a Howard County police officer in more than 40 years, the department's chief said yesterday that he will re-evaluate traffic-enforcement details that require officers to step into the roadway and flag down speeding motorists - a dangerous practice that some departments have abandoned.

"We will take a look and determine if it's a practice we want to continue or modify," Howard County Chief William J. McMahon said after Pfc. Scott Wheeler died yesterday of head injures suffered Saturday after a car he was trying to stop hit him.

"If there's lessons to be learned, we will."

The technique, known as "stepping out," is an efficient way to stop speeders. Maryland State Police use it often and have done so for a long time, said 1st Sgt. Russell Newell.

But some departments have dropped the practice in favor of officers activating their cruisers' lights and sirens and pulling up behind speeders, said Richard Ashton, an expert on highway safety at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Pursuing cars, however, results in fewer tickets during special-enforcement operations - when a team of officers, armed with a radar or laser and often on overtime, does nothing but enforce traffic laws.

"As your speed increases, your reaction time is diminished," said Andrew Scott, a former police chief in Boca Raton, Fla., who prohibited officers from stepping out into traffic lanes with speed limits of 45 miles an hour or more.

The 24-year-old Columbia woman who hit Wheeler Saturday on Route 32 never saw him, according to Howard police. Wheeler died early yesterday at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"You have drivers changing CDs, answering their phones, looking at maps," Ashton said. "Sometimes they're just distracted by good innocent things."

Although data does not exist on the number of officers killed while "stepping out" into traffic, 120 law-enforcement officers standing on roadways died after being struck by vehicles in a 10-year period from January 1995 to December 2004, according to FBI statistics. That averages out to one death a month.

The officers were directing traffic, assisting motorists or pulling over vehicles - doing duties that would cause them to be out of their cruisers.

In 2004, a state trooper was fatally struck by a car as he tried to remove a tire from Route 50 in Prince George's County after a crash.

In 2005, a Howard County auxiliary officer was hit by a sport utility vehicle while getting out of his own SUV to direct traffic at the scene of an Ellicott City accident. One of his legs was amputated as a result of his injuries.

Howard County requires officers to wear reflective vests "at all times" while directing traffic or conducting speed enforcement. The requirement is underlined in the Police Department's written rules, called general orders.

McMahon said that Wheeler, 31, of Millersville, and the two officers working the speed enforcement detail with him on eastbound Route 32 Saturday afternoon were wearing their vests.

McMahon also said that the team was working at a site that police use frequently.

At that point, between Interstate 95 and U.S. 1, Route 32 is two lanes in each direction, flat, straight and not in the shadow of a bridge - factors that officers should weigh when picking a site for speed enforcement, experts said. The speed limit is 55 mph.

At the time of the 2 p.m. accident, the roadway also was well lit, and the sun wasn't in drivers' eyes.

But if a driver isn't paying attention, safety precautions will do little to protect officers.

An International Association of Chiefs of Police video on roadside safety warned officers that their vests "wouldn't stop these bullets" and showed images of numerous cars crashing into police cruisers parked on highway shoulders.

Michael Frye, 47, of Severna Park, said yesterday he remembers police pulling him over on the same stretch of Route 32 for speeding last year. He conceded that he was both speeding and not paying attention, but said the officer's behavior also was unsafe.

"They don't wave at you; they jump out," he said. "They stand right in front of you. It scared me. I slammed on the breaks to stop. The whole time I'm thinking, `This guy is going to get hit.' "

Alex Weiss, director of the Center for Public Safety at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said that "stepping out" is a more common practice in the eastern United States than the west. It's common and works well - most of the time, he said.

"We do this type of enforcement every single day," said Cpl. Jason Baker, president of the county's police union.

"Traffic is one of the most dangerous things we do."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this story.

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